District 1 Class 5A baseball: Strath Haven gets chance for revenge in final against Upper Dublin

NETHER PROVIDENCE — For the second year in a row, Strath Haven will meet Upper Dublin in the District 1 Class 5A championship game.

Senior southpaw Alex Pak is presented with a rarer opportunity: He is tabbed to start on the mound for the third-seeded Panthers, who aim to avenge a devastating 3-2 loss to the No. 1 Cardinals last spring.

“We can’t wait to play them again. We know we’re going to have a great scouting report on them,” Pak said after an 11-5 win over Rustin in the semifinal round. “Hopefully we get them back from last year.”

Tuesday’s showdown at Villanova Ballpark at Plymouth (4 p.m. first pitch) will mark the third consecutive year Strath Haven has played for a District 1 Class 5A championship. The Panthers won their second title in program history with a 6-0 decision over Oxford in 2021.

“I told the seniors, you’ve already done something special,” coach Brian Fili said. “In baseball, getting to the district title three straight years, it’s very hard. There’s so many variables … and way too many things that can happen. You can have an amazing year and then come up against one stud pitcher in the playoffs who completely shuts you down and you can’t help that. If you’re running into a guy like (Upper Darby senior Chris) Zupito, you can lose any day. So getting there three straight times is incredible for this senior class …  and we get to turn the ball over to Alex on Tuesday to get another shot at Upper Dublin.”

There is nobody else the Panthers would rather have on the hill in a huge spot. Pak has been the best pitcher in Delco this year, posting a 0.00 ERA with 69 strikeouts in 47 innings. Sporting a 9-0 record, Pak has given up three unearned runs on 18 hits and 19 walks. In the Panthers’ 5-0 win over Phoenixville in the quarterfinals, Pak went the distance, striking out eight while allowing only three singles and a walk. A fixture in the middle of the lineup, Pak helped his cause with a single and two RBIs.

To his admiring teammates, Pak is a walking marvel.

“He has the biggest you-know-what in Delco. Ice in his veins, every single time,” senior co-captain Sam Milligan said. “You think he can’t do it again and he manages to do it again, all the time. He has so much movement on his fastball. No one has seen anyone like him. He throws strikes and he has good offspeed pitches. I wish I knew how he does it.”

Pak pitched six strong innings in last year’s final. He left the game with the scored tied 2-2, but in the bottom of the seventh, a costly error with two outs and the bases loaded enabled the Cardinals to score the winning run, leaving the Panthers stunned.

The Panthers never got over that miserable feeling.

“We’ve been thinking the whole postseason, when are we going to see them? We want that bad,” Milligan said. “We felt like we were the better team last year, that we played the better game. We played better six innings of baseball and the one moment that they played better than us, they won the game. So that’s been a huge factor for us to get back there.”

The Panthers (17-4) won their second Central League championship in three years on the strength of pitching and defense. When Pak wasn’t dealing, it was sophomore Luke D’Anonca and senior relief ace Zane Malarkey, who threw two shutdown innings in relief against Rustin.

The bats are starting to click, too. They pounded out four extra-base hits and scored 11 runs in the semifinal round. Milligan went 2-for-3 with a double and an RBI, while Pak doubled and scored two runs. Jake McDonough had a double and two RBIs. Nick Corritore added a pair of singles and drove in a run.

If the offense can get him a few runs of support, Pak has proved time and time again that he can do the heavy lifting.

“He’s earned it. You know, whatever happens happens, but I know he’s gonna go out there and give us his best effort,” Fili said. “We’ve got to play defense behind him because he’s not gonna beat himself. That’s for sure.”

The Cardinals (18-5) will likely give the ball to Aidan McCarthy, who threw a two-hit shutout and struck out three in a 5-0 win over West Chester East in the quarterfinals. Upper Dublin edged No. 12 Oxford, 6-5, in the semifinals after nearly blowing a five-run lead.

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